Polish Cinema: Yesterday (Radoslaw Piwowarski, 1985, Poland)

Yesterday, the first theatrical feature from writer-director Radoslaw Piwowarski, is an entertaining if somewhat uneven coming-of-age tale. The film is Piwowarski’s best known, and was selected as the Polish entry for the Academy Awards in 1985 (although not nominated). Assuredly based on memories from Piwowarski’s own youth, the film tells the story of Pawelek - also known as Ringo - a young man obsessed with the music of the Beatles. It’s the summer of 1964, and Pawelek is in a band with his friends, all of whom sport a mop-top.
The boys’ obsession with the Beatles in provincial 1960s Poland gets them into trouble with their school. During an air raid drill, their schoolmaster lectures them that their long hair makes it impossible to get the gas mask on and off quickly. It also gets Pawelek into trouble with the Church. Pawelek lives with his elderly religious aunt, and is an altar boy at the local church. The priest - one of Pawelek’s principal adversaries in the film - objects to Pawelek’s haircut, telling his aunt that he “looks like an ape.”
There is a romantic subplot in the course of the film, in which Pawelek gets involved with Ania, a young woman who - caught in a tryst with another member of the band - is blackmailed by the boys’ headmaster and forced out of her home. The plot takes on some absurd and melodramatic turns, with Pawelek and Ania’s first romantic encounter appearing to reference Christ’s crucifixion. The acting is generally way over the top. Still, there is something worthwhile about Piwowarski’s portrayal of small-town life in this Poland - the empty streets at night conveying the sense of a search for something more. He also tacks on a “surprise” ending that adds to the melancholic tone of the film.


6/10

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